The mother of all elections

Can the favorite daughter of the Christian right knock off the feminist senator in tennis shoes?

By Lori Leibovich
October 28, 1998 2:55PM (UTC)
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At a fund-raising luncheon last week in suburban Seattle, an elderly woman in a gray pantsuit approached Rep. Linda Smith, Republican candidate for Senate. Like many constituents, she had a personal story to share. The voter told Smith that last year, while lunching with her granddaughter at Nordstrom, she noticed a familiar-looking woman nearby wearing old jeans and an athletic jacket.

"I stared and stared at this woman and then I realized it was Patty Murray!" she said disdainfully, referring to Washington state's junior senator and Smith's Democratic opponent in a heated Senate race. "I couldn't believe that our senator would look so terrible in a public place!"


Smith, her short black hair expertly coifed, her cobalt blue business suit perfectly pressed, cocked her head to one side and paused for a moment before responding.

"Patty and I are the same age, we came out of a let-it-hang-loose time and, well, I guess some people never change," Smith said, her voice sympathetic to the woman's concerns. "They've cleaned her up a lot now, but when she was in the state senate, she was, well, very casual."

Folksy, low-key and, yes, very casual, Patty Murray sold herself six years ago as "just a mom in tennis shoes." She may still be a little too rumpled for some of her constituents. But on every issue except wardrobe, Smith, a firebrand with a fierce independent streak, is making Murray seem downright establishment. Mother, grandmother and Christian right populist, Smith refuses most PAC money. She's backed by a cadre of loyal supporters known as "Linda's Army," and they view her campaign as a crusade.


The big news in this War of the Moms is that so-called women's issues haven't been much of an issue at all. Sure, Murray and Smith clash on everything from abortion -- Murray is solidly pro-choice while Smith believes abortion should be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest -- to the presidential sex scandal. While Murray denounced the president's behavior, Smith was the first woman in Congress to call for his resignation. ("He got caught. He was like a little boy with crumbs all over his face," she told Larry King.) But mostly they've been talking about the unglamorous bread-and-butter political issues important to voters in Washington and all over the country -- issues like trade, campaign finance, education, Social Security and the proper role of the federal government.

"I know it's feminist heresy, but I think this race is great," says Elinor Burkett, author of "The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America." "That women are fighting over political issues means that feminism has worked. The fact that Linda Smith is getting up there and not talking about women's issues shows there is an ideological war going on and it's reminding us that women don't just vote as women."

Is this race, the only woman vs. woman Senate race this year and only the third one in history, really a triumph for feminism? Some Murray supporters aren't sure. "It will be a good day when we have two pro-women's-issue candidates, like a Christine Todd Whitman running against a Patty Murray," says Cathy Allen, a Seattle-based political consultant and vice president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "That would be a signal that we were equal. A candidate like Smith who is so extreme is not helpful to women."


But Murray's feminist backers cannot afford to be generous. Even though the most recent polls show the incumbent with a comfortable lead, no one -- not even the Murray camp -- will count out the influence of "Linda's Army," a grass-roots coalition of Perot Party reformers and Christian conservatives in the eastern and southwestern part of the state.

Even EMILY's List, an organization that helps elect pro-choice, Democratic women, won't count Murray in the win column. "Women voters are going to be important for Murray," said Stephanie Cohen, communications director for EMILY's List. "Women make up an important part of the Democratic base in Washington state. If they stay home, she could be in trouble, because Smith's conservative base is motivated."


"Linda's opponents always try to label her supporters as Christians, but that's just an attempt to demonize her," says Erik Lokkesmoe, a Smith spokesman. Indeed, the latest round of Murray advertisements hits Smith for her "extreme" views on abortion, education and cuts to Medicare. "But remember," Lokkesmoe says ominously, "she has never lost an election."

While on most issues the candidates are fervently opposed, they do have some things in common. Both women are 48-year-old mothers of two, and both come from working-class families with their share of troubles: Abuse and alcoholism plagued Smith's family, while Murray's father was struck with multiple sclerosis when she was young. Both served in the Washington state legislature and had pet issues -- for Murray, education; for Smith, tax reform -- that catapulted them into national politics. But observing them on the campaign trail last week, it was their differences -- both in personal style and ideology -- that were most striking.

Smith, who hails from the southwestern Washington town of Hazel Dell, married her husband, Vern, a railroad worker, 30 years ago at age 17, and is a devout member of the Assembly of God church. She first proved her political mettle in 1994, when she staged a successful write-in campaign to get her name on the ballot as the Republican candidate for the 3rd Congressional District. She won easily and went to Washington, D.C., as part of the Republican revolution, where she ruffled feathers by lobbying for campaign finance reform and by voting to oust House Speaker Newt Gingrich. She is often vilified for her tactlessness (she once called Gingrich a "fat boy" ), her extremism (of President Clinton: "We've got a president with a character of someone we wouldn't let your teenage daughter alone with") and her rough edge (a recent Seattle Weekly cover depicted Smith as a dominatrix with her high heel digging into Murray's rump). But of the two candidates she is by far the more compelling and telegenic. An attractive brunette in bold business suits, she is a confident orator, at home in front of a lectern, and is nearly unflappable when taking questions from reporters and voters.


Yet despite her genial polished facade, Smith is further to the right than most politicians and voters in the state. Even though in recent years Christian conservatives have made inroads on school boards and in local races, the Puget Sound area around Seattle, where the majority of the electorate resides, is liberal to moderate. Smith has a 100 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition. On the issue of abortion in the case of rape and incest, Smith has said, "We don't kill children because their father is a jerk."

Murray, a petite blonde who favors pastels, is more tentative, less severe. One of her campaign slogans, "Quietly getting things done," tries to make a virtue out of what many see as a liability. Ushered onto the national political stage to much fanfare during the "Year of the Woman," Murray has been unable to garner much momentum on Capitol Hill.

"Patty Murray is not charismatic and she doesn't attract a rabid following," says David Olson, a professor of political science at the University of Washington. "Smith attracts and repels people. You either love her or hate her." Adds Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on Congress: "Among the women who were elected six years ago, Murray is very different, personality-wise. Carol Moseley-Braun and Barbara Boxer are very assertive, combative, in-your-face individuals and Murray is very low-key. Smith is deeply identified as a reformer and pursues her views whatever the consequences."


Murray has struggled during her campaign to highlight her legislative accomplishments, which have been limited. "She was only in the state senate for two years before a feminist group picked her up and marketed her tennis shoes," snipes Smith. "That's kind of a fast trip when all of a sudden you're with people who have run corporations or have been very competitive. She just got lost for five years."

"I think she really was a mom in tennis shoes," says Debbie Walsh, associate director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. "The challenge for Patty Murray is that while she is 'one of us,' you also want her to be 'one of them,' enough of an insider so she can bring things back to the home state. Candidates who run as outsiders or 'just folks' have to figure out what to do after the election."

Murray herself admits it's been hard to get much done with Republicans controlling the Senate, and says she's worked hard to "reach across the aisle" to compromise with Republicans, including Washington's senior senator, Slade Gordon. But last week Murray received a much-needed pre-election victory in the form of a
$1.2 billion appropriation to the budget bill to begin hiring 100,000 new teachers in order to reduce class sizes -- an item that Murray, a former teacher, had been lobbying for for months.

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On the stump, both candidates refer to themselves as moms, invoke their children and claim to be the true candidate for working families. "Nothing is more important to me than my six grandkids, except maybe my two kids," Smith is fond of saying. But the family-values mantra, so resonant just six years ago in campaigns across the country, is barely uttered. Abortion hasn't been much of an issue, even though Murray, one of the staunchest supporters of choice, received a 100 percent approval rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

"I haven't heard a peep about abortion," says author Burkett. "People think women of the right are concerned with the same women's issues that liberal women are concerned with. But Smith is the queen of campaign finance reform. She's a right-wing populist. We want to put women politicians in the woman box, but Smith belongs in the right-wing populist box. She's suspicious of government."

Yet at a press conference last week, Smith brought family values in through the back door and railed against her opponent for "raiding Social Security" in order to balance the budget, shortchanging children and seniors. Then she reached into a large glass jar, grabbed a wad of cash, and in a photo-opportunity flourish, crumpled it in her hand to represent the vanishing funds.

"It's these kids you see here today who are going to be in trouble," she said, pointing to two rosy, redheaded toddlers. "I will not violate kids or senior citizens. The only special interests I have are the families of this state."


Murray fought back at an event of her own last Thursday, standing before a podium draped in red, white and blue bunting, with the Sister Sledge song "We Are Family" blaring in the background. She told a group of supporters at Seattle's Planet Hollywood restaurant that on the same day she helped hire 100,000 new teachers, her opponent had accepted $100,000 from the very special interest groups she deplored. The message was clear: Linda Smith is a hypocrite.

Murray's attack was prompted by Smith's acceptance of a much-needed $100,000 infusion from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Smith, who religiously refuses PAC money, saying it would make her beholden to special interests, contends it's kosher to accept funds from the national party, since she doesn't know where the money came from, and thus can't favor donors.

"We don't think that will pass the smell test with voters," says Rex Carney, spokesman for the Murray campaign. "She has made campaign finance reform her No. 1 issue. How can she justify taking this money from the party when it comes from the very interests she has complained about?" But the $100,000 sum is less than half of what the Republicans had allocated for Washington this election season. Because Smith so angered Republican leaders -- including the head of the committee, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- by supporting campaign finance reform, the national purse strings were drawn tight.

Nationally, feminist analysts are watching the race to see whether the gains women achieved in the so-called Year of the Woman are enduring. Earlier this year some worried that they weren't, when Murray, Boxer and Moseley-Braun were pronounced in trouble by many Washington pundits. Now, with Murray and Boxer leading in their races -- only Moseley-Braun remains in trouble, largely because of problems of her own making -- advocates for female candidates are a little less tense about Nov. 3.


The candidates themselves say this race has little to do with feminism, or motherhood, but instead reflects two women with different ideologies drawn to public office for their own reasons.

Asked by a reporter how being a mother influenced her politics, Murray laughed. She said she couldn't separate being a mother from growing up in a family that had relied on government help to get through tough times. "When I was 13 my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis," she said. "My mom had never worked and she had to go on welfare while she went back to school. Without that safety net I wouldn't have been educated. My government was there for me and I want to make sure that continues for other families."

Smith, not surprisingly, insists being a woman has little to do with her politics, or her political success.

"I am [in Washington, D.C.] based on my own ability," she said emphatically. "I've been a competitive, aggressive businesswoman, and then a competitive, aggressive political woman. It's not fair to women as a whole to raise up any woman to a position based on the fact that they marketed their tennis shoes."

But a week before Election Day, polls say the familiar "mom in tennis shoes" has the edge with voters over the "competitive, aggressive" Smith.

At a campaign forum at the Primera Blue Cross/Blue Shield in suburban Seattle last week, Dena Jordan, a research analyst and mother in her 40s, came out to hear both women on the issues. But it was Murray she connected with.

"She presents her views in a way that I understand," Jordan said of Murray's plain talk on education and health care. "I like the fact that she is a mom in tennis shoes."

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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